GREAT FALLS - Leaders nationwide are planning to launch a new three-digit dialing code: 988 later this month.
It’s intended as an easy-to-remember way for callers to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
When 988 officially launches on July 16, all Montana calls to the new number will be handled by three call centers across the state that have already been responding to Lifeline calls. One of those centers is operated by the nonprofit Voices of Hope.
“People need support, and that’s what we’re here to give – the support and guidance of, ‘Don’t lose hope, there’s always hope, we just need to go a different angle of looking at it,’” said Jackie Gittins, Voices of Hope’s longtime director.
At their undisclosed location in Great Falls, at least one operator is always ready — 24 hours a day, seven days a week — to speak to someone in crisis.
“If they’ve called in and they’ve had the guts to call, they deserve to have it answered,” Gittins said.
Whenever someone in Montana calls the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, they’re redirected to one of the in-state call centers based on their location. Voices of Hope covers much of northern, central and eastern Montana.
The Help Center in Bozeman responds to calls in southwestern Montana, and Western Montana Mental Health Center in Missoula takes calls in the western part of the state.
Gittins says they’ve known 988 was coming for several years. Overall, she believes it’s a positive change.
“I’m happy about it; the 1 (800) number – I know it, of course; I’ve been living with it for 20 years,” she said. “But 988 is three digits; it’s very simple.”
But the change also brings unknowns. Over the last year, Voices of Hope received 4,854 Lifeline calls, with between 300 and 600 each month. Gittins says they’ve been told to expect a 30% increase once 988 is launched. That could mean around 1,500 additional calls in the next year.
“It could be less; it could be more,” said Gittins. “The more is the scary part, because we’re amped up to handle the 30 % more. Any more than that, we could have an excess of backup calls. We do have a three-, four-tier backup system ready for that, but that means we’re going to have to additionally, in the future, hire more people.”
Voices of Hope previously had eight paid staff and two volunteers. In the last six months, Gittins says they’ve scaled up to 11 paid staff and three volunteers. She says, despite the uncertainty, she’s comfortable with where they are, as they wait for the first calls to 988.
“People will call out of curiosity as well – that’s fine,” she said. “Just don’t call and hang up. We would prefer you let us know, and we’ll tell you what we do and how we can help.”
If you or a loved one are having thoughts of suicide, please reach out.
The Montana Suicide Lifeline is 1 (800) 273-8255, or you can text “MT” to 741741. The service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The 1 (800) number will remain active even after 988 launches nationwide.